The first of the Peters boys to die in battle was Private John Francklyn “Jack” Peters, born October 19, 1892 in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, the second son and third child of Premier Frederic Peters and Bertha Hamilton Gray.
The circumstances of his death in the Second Battle of Ypres on April 24, 1915 are one of the mysteries of the Peters Family History. He was in the thick of one of the fiercest battles in Canadian history, a conflagration made worse by the surprise use of poison gas by the Germans at a time when their opponents had no respirators or other protection against it.
As a large number of Jack’s comrades in the 7th British Columbia Battalion were taken prisoner that day, Jack’s family hoped he was alive and safe as a prisoner while he continued to be listed as “missing”. Rumours that he was being held at the Celle Lager camp in Hanover proved to be wrong when the Red Cross reported in May 1916 that Jack was no among the POW’s.
His sister Helen Peters Dewdney (my grandmother) remembered Jack as a normal, happy-go-lucky boy, who would dutifully serve his country and Empire in wartime, but was happy to let older brother Fritz be the hero of the family. The Peters moved to Victoria, B.C. in 1898, and then to Prince Rupert, B.C. in 1911, as his father pursued better financial prospects.
At the outbreak of war in August 1914 Jack was working as a bank clerk in Prince Rupert. Unlike his younger brothers Gerald and Noel, Jack had no difficulty passing the medical examination for army enlistment. He trained with the First Contingent through the winter of 1914-15 in Salisbury Plain in England, and embarked for France in February 1915.
Jack Peters was born October 19. 1892, the middle child of Frederick Peters and Bertha Gray of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Sister Helen Peters was five years older and brother Frederic Thornton “Fritz” Peters was three when Jack was born at the Peters family home known as Sidmount House. At the time of Jack`s arrival, his father was the Hon. Frederick Peters, premier and attorney general of Prince Edward Island for more than a year.
Two years later in 1894, fraternal twin brothers Gerald Hamilton Peters and Noel Quintan Peters were born. In 1899, after the family had moved across the continent to Victoria, British Columbia, sister Violet Avis Peters was born, seven years younger than Jack. His father had resigned as premier in October 1897, and moved his family to Victoria where he established a law practice with another well-known departing Maritimer, Sir Charles Hibbert Tupper.
Jack attended school in Victoria, and then in 1900 he went to England with other family members. They resided at Bedford, north of London, where his mother Bertha`s stepmother moved after the death of her husband John Hamilton Gray in 1887. Jack and brother Fritz were students at the Bedford Grammar School in the 1900-01 school year, and sister Helen attended the Bedford School for Girls. The following year Fritz transferred to Cordwalles School in Maidenhead, known as a preparatory school for future Royal Navy officers, in line with Fritz`s dream of a naval career. Jack continued at Bedford Grammar school for another two years. We do not have details of his further schooling, but it appears from his letters that he returned to Victoria where he attended school and participated in militia training. In January 1905 brother Fritz enlisted in the Royal Navy, and in November 1905 younger sister Violet died in a fireplace accident in the family home in Oak Bay, immediately east of Victoria.
In 1911 Jack moved with the family to the north coastal town of Prince Rupert where his father took the family when he accepted the position of Solicitor (lawyer) for the City of Prince Rupert. At the time, it appeared Prince Rupert was going to be a boom town, and a port to rival Vancouver.
The following year sister Helen married Edgar Edwin Lawrence “Ted” Dewdney in Esquimalt, and the couple moved to Vernon where Ted was an accountant with the Bank of Montreal, with whom he had worked since 1897. Perhaps assisted – or at least inspired – by brother-in-law Ted Dewdney, Jack went to work as a clerk at the Bank of Montreal branch in Prince Rupert. About the same time, brother Gerald was employed as a clerk with the Union Bank in Prince Rupert. Jack, Gerald and Noel all served in the Earl Grey`s Own Rifles militia in Prince Rupert.
At the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 he and brothers Gerald and Noel rushed to enlist, but only Jack was accepted for war service. Like Jack, Gerald was tall at 6 foot, one and a half inches, but Gerald`s chest measurement was below the army standard, so he was rejected. Gerald later travelled to Montreal to enlist there, and this time passed the physical exam. Noel was rejected because of a slight, but noticeable, mental disability, and was not accepted for military service until he was allowed to join the Canadian Forestry Corps in Britain in May 1917.
Jack was in the First Contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, serving with the 7th British Columbia/Duke of Connaught battalion. He trained at the Valcartier base in Quebec and then went overseas to England where he trained in Salisbury Plain with other Empire troops in the wettest winter weather on record. He arrived in France in late February and was in minor trench action for the next couple of months, including the Battle of Neuve Chapelle.
In a letter home to his mother in January 1915 he said “You needn’t worry about me because I don’t intend to put my head up above the trench to shoot the Germans. Me for where the earth is thickest and highest.” He was happy to let his brother Fritz be the war hero of the family.
However, Jack would be the first of three Peters brothers to die in the world wars of the 20th century. He was killed on Saturday, April 24, 1915 in the 2nd Battle of Ypres when Canadian troops made a courageous stand against a massive German attack that used poison gas for the first time on the Western Front.
The use of poison gas in artillery shells was forbidden by the Hague Conventions which both sides had agreed to in 1899 and 1906, but the German commander at Ypres thought he could get away with spreading the gas directly from canisters and piping from their own trenches, depending on the wind to take it to the enemy. The completely surprised French colonial troops on the Canadians’ left panicked and ran away from their positions upon experiencing the greenish-yellow cloud of chlorine gas late in the afternoon of April 22nd, which left the inexperienced Canadians to fill a four-mile gap in the Allied line protecting the headquarters at Ypres and the coastal ports.
Reinforcements promised by the French never arrived. The Germans did not expect the gas to have such a dramatic impact – wind conditions and temperature were ideal for distribution of the heavier-than-air gas, unlike a previous attempt to use poison gas on the Russian front — and were not prepared with reserves to immediately take advantage of the break in the line. They were ready by the early morning of Saturday, April 24th, launching a full-scale offensive with gas directly against the Canadians.
Jack in the 7th battalion would have been right in the middle of the vicious battle. The Canadians found they could function somewhat under the gas by holding urine-soaked handkerchiefs against their faces and partially neutralizing the chlorine. Records show that relatively few soldiers died from just the poison gas; they would be hit by bullets and shells when drawn away from their trenches by the gas and unable to defend themselves. Flame-throwers were also introduced for the first time in the offensive, making a horrific situation even worse for the defenders.
If the Canadians had not held the new battle line, the enemy could have easily encircled 50,000 Allied troops and marched to the North Sea to capture ports (as happened at Dunkirk in May 1940 in the Second World War), which would have been a devastating blow to the Allies. British General Sir John French gave the Canadians credit for extraordinary bravery and said they “saved the situation”. The Germans began respecting Canadians as adversaries after this battle.
While we don’t know exactly what happened to Jack in the battle (witnesses died too), it is noteworthy that he was a part of what was arguably the most important defensive stand in Canadian history.
There were hundreds of Canadian prisoners taken in the shifting front that day, and for a period the military authorities thought Jack might be among prisoners in Belgium or Germany. Dozens of soldiers of the 7th Battalion were taken prisoner after the Germans surrounded and captured the small village of St. Julien. The Peters family felt 100% sure that Jack was safe as a prisoner, largely because Fred`s cousin Helen Francklyn in Bristol said a friend of hers in Switzerland found out that Jack was at the Celle Lager prison in Hanover. However, the Red Cross found that the prisoner in question in Hanover was in fact someone else, so on May 29, 1916 Jack was officially presumed to have died “on or after April 24, 1915”. Of 900 men and 24 officers in Jack’s battalion, 580 men and 18 officers were casualties in the 100 hours of frantic action that followed the first gas attack. Four Victoria Crosses were awarded to Canadians in the battle, including Lieutenant Edward Bellew of Jack’s 7th battalion. John McCrae, a surgeon in charge of a field hospital, wrote his famous poem “In Flanders Fields” on May 3, 1915, inspired by the death of a close friend in the same battle in which Jack died.
After being assured for so long that Jack was safe, his mother Bertha refused to believe he had died. She did not accept his death until the war was over, and no further information on Jack had emerged. She grieved much more for son Gerald, who died in the Battle of Mount Sorrel in June 1916. Gerald was her favourite child, and they were exceptionally close. A memorial plaque (image below) with the names of Jack Peters, Gerald Peters, their cousin Arthur Gordon Peters, and seven other Charlottetown boys who died in the war was installed at St. Paul`s Anglican Church in Charlottetown. The names of Jack and Gerald Peters are also listed on the Menin Gate memorial in Ypres that includes the names of thousands of Allied soldiers who died at Ypres with no identified remains.